FRANKFORT — When I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University in 1976, two professors took several photojournalism students I knew to the Eastern Kentucky mountains for a week to document the state's last one-room schoolhouses.
The following fall, they turned their lenses on a scruffy neighborhood at the end of Bowling Green's Main Street. That led to trips the next two years to Land Between the Lakes and a remote town in the Tennessee mountains.
I was impressed by the pictures my friends returned with, and how much they learned while making them. But that annual field trip grew into more than any of us could have imagined.
Each October, the Mountain Workshops convenes in a different small town in Kentucky or Tennessee to teach visual storytelling through an intense week of documenting the stories of average people in photos, video, sound and writing.
"We have one goal: to become better storytellers," said James Kenney, the workshops director and head of WKU's photojournalism program. "We want to change the way they see."
The program celebrated its 40th anniversary last week in Frankfort. As always, it was a major production.
About 40 WKU staff members and students arrived at a vacant call center building on the edge of town last weekend and unloaded a truck filled with audio-visual equipment, tables and chairs.
With 89 new Apple iMac computers loaned by a sponsor and several miles of network cable, they created temporary multimedia labs for photographers, videographers, picture editors, graphic artists and writers.
On Monday, an all-volunteer corps of 56 faculty and staff members arrived from across the country. They included some of the nation's best visual journalists from places such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.
The workshop's 73 participants arrived Tuesday to literally reach into a hat and pull out the name of a subject whose story they would spend the next four days figuring out and learning how to tell.
Most of the participants were WKU students, but others were from universities across the nation, including Harvard and Syracuse. Others were working professionals, who came to learn new skills and rediscover their passion.
Over the next few days, they would spend hours making photographs, shooting and editing video, conducting interviews and writing.
In addition to workshops in documentary photography and video, there were smaller ones in photo editing, time-lapse photography and "data visualization" — translating numbers into understandable print and interactive online graphics.
By the time everyone leaves for home Sunday morning, they will have created a website (Mountainworkshops.org) with dozens of word, picture and video stories, a book of more than 100 pages and a framed gallery show.
Nobody will have gotten much sleep.
"The point of the workshop is not to make the best images you've ever made, but to prepare you to make the best images you'll ever make," said Rick Loomis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer at the Los Angeles Times.
Loomis began his career as a WKU student at the workshop and returns almost every year as a photo coach.
I joined the faculty in 1995 as a writing and story coach. I have helped with 16 workshops, and I have seen how it has changed participants' lives and careers.
Leslye Davis is a good example. I met her in 2009 when she was a shy WKU sophomore from Greensburg in the photo editing class. She returned the next two years as a video and photo student.
Davis, 25, is now an outstanding videographer at The New York Times. She was back at the workshop last week as a confident, insightful video coach.
Davis said the workshop was pivotal in her career development. It taught her a range of skills by doing them on deadline in real-life situations.
"It teaches you that you can work longer and harder than you ever thought," she said. "People keep coming back because they know how good it is for the future of the profession."